Department of Physics and Technology

The Van de Graaff generator: a miniature nuclear laboratory

Research at the Physics Institute was initially focused largely on the Van de Graaff generator. This is a particle accelerator, the second one built in Bergen. The Van de Graaff generator was developed by the American physicist Robert Van de Graaff (1901-1967). The generator makes it possible to experiment with high voltage using relatively low electrical current.

Eneste av sitt slag

Frode Ims

Main content

IFT’s (Institute of Physics and Technology) is the only machine of its kind in the world and is housed in a custom-built tower with a metallic dome. When it was first installed in the early 1950s, it was the most powerful generator in Europe with a voltage of 1 million. The generator was used for research at the University and a similar generator was used for cancer therapy at Haukeland Hospital until 1971. When in use, the generator produces harmful neutron radiation. One must therefore stand behind a protective wall of paraffin blocks when the generator is switched on.

85-year-old Arvid Erdal, who worked for many years as a nuclear physicist at IFT, comes in regularly despite having retired 18 years ago. In addition to working as a lecturer and examiner, Dr. Erdal has a big mission: he makes sure that the Van de Graaff generator is functioning as it should and, as of today, he is the only one at IFT who knows how to do it. The video clip above shows a recent interview with Dr. Erdal (in Norwegian).

Today, the generator is only used for teaching purposes. The Van der Graaff  has great scientific and historical value for UiB and, as such, is protected but its future is regardless rather uncertain.